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You can experience many different emotions — 27 in all, according to some experts — ranging from joy to irritation to shame, along with everything in between.

Absolutely, some of these emotions evoke more pleasant feelings than others. Still, there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion. Every emotion has its role in a healthy inner life.

Emotions are subjective reactions to events. Two people can watch the same football game and have different reactions to the outcome. One person may be happy, the other sad.

Emotions play a role in memory processes. The way you react to a specific event can affect how well you remember it later.

Mental health conditions that involve emotional distress or extreme changes in your typical emotional reactions, including generalized anxiety disorder and depression, may also affect your memory.

You can learn how emotions affect the memory-making process and what you can do about it.

Depending on the situation and the emotions it provokes, strong emotions can either enhance or suppress your memory.

Emotions affect the details you store in memory

Emotional arousal is when you feel like you are awake and you are more alert to your environment. Emotions like fear and anger can quicken your pulse.

In an aroused state, your brain streamlines its attention to only the most important stimuli around you. Details get priority if:

  • They’re easy to perceive: You’re more likely to notice a loud crash over a muffled whisper, or bright neon letters over small, faded writing.
  • They involve emotion: In a car crash, you may give all your attention to a hurt family member, not the stranger in the other car.
  • They relate to your goals: If your partner starts choking during dinner, you’ll probably focus on the CPR steps needed to save them, not the taste of burnt lasagna in your mouth.

“These details are hardwired into your mind and make it possible to remember what happened. The stimuli were ignored in the heat. You might find it hard to remember, because you don’t notice what you don’t notice.”

Emotional content is easier to recall

Memories of emotional events are often more vivid and accurate than memories of neutral experiences. For example, you probably remember more details about your first kiss than the first time you brushed your own teeth.

From an evolutionary standpoint, emotions offer cues that help you avoid future threats and successfully reproduce. A fond memory of your first kiss can motivate you to find a romantic partner so you can experience that happiness again. This goal, incidentally, raises your odds of having children and passing on your genes.

“Your first toothbrush encounter will probably not offer any game-changing insight for your future self. The act of brushing your teeth is important for your health and survival, but the details of how the bristles felt and what the toothpaste tasted like don’t matter much.”

Plus, it’s an act you repeat every day, at least twice. So, your brain is less likely to spend the resources to convert that event into a core memory.

From a neurological standpoint, emotional events are easier to remember because they activate your amygdala and hippocampus at almost exactly the same time. The emotion-focused amygdala helps the hippocampus store memories more effectively, resulting in stronger memories.

Stress affects both memory storage and recall

Emotions like embarrassment or rage can ramp up your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol triggers two different processes in the memory-related areas of your brain.

The first process, which lasts for about half an hour after the stressor, encourages the neurons in your amygdala and hippocampus to be more responsive. It is easier to form and access memories related to stimuli that are not in memory.

The second process takes your brain out of whack. The amygdala and hippocampus become less responsive about an hour after the stressor. It becomes harder to remember with these resting neurons.

If you find yourself stressed out about a final exam in the 20 minutes before it, you may recall the information you studied more clearly.

On the other hand, maybe you spend the whole day panicking about the test. By the time you sit down at your desk, your hippocampus and amygdala will be exhausted, and you’ll have a harder time remembering everything you learned.

Stress can also affect the things you remember

It is not uncommon to have a harder time remembering things unrelated to stressor.

“You have to run through your mental checklist before a parent visit to make sure you don’t forget anything. You may not remember your roommate leaving the rent check on the hall table.”

Understanding how emotions affect your memory can give you insight into your current state of mind.

Emotions don’t happen in isolation

Research from 2018 suggests emotional memories can enhance your response to stimuli, like pictures or music.

Say your favorite artist has two sad songs on their album. If you were listening to one of those songs while your ex dumped you, you will feel more alone and gloomy than if you were listening to the other song.

Even if the song you were listening to was not all that sad, this still holds true. Maybe it is uplifting. The memory of the break up can make it upsetting. Past emotions can affect your present feelings about a given stimuli.

This phenomenon appears to be more powerful for social emotions like tenderness and negative emotions like melancholy, than for memory.

Emotions can skew your perspective

When you’re young, your memory tends to have a negativity bias. In other words, you’re more likely to recall negative events, like mistakes, arguments, or losses. Your mind may also highlight painful emotions, like betrayal or jealousy.

There are a lot of unknowns that are on the horizon, and some of them might be threats. Keeping information that you could use to solve future problems might pay off.

As you age, your developmental needs may shift from exploring the world to leaving behind a legacy. Your memory may then flip toward more of a positivity bias, as recalling and sharing your successes and passions with the next generation becomes more adaptive than tracking possible threats.

It is possible that memories with affection, pride, and nostalgia will get more priority.

Positive and negative biases have their purpose, but they can cause problems if they get too powerful.

  • Too much of a negativity bias may contribute to depression. If you only recall the worst parts of your past, your whole life may seem more joyless and bleak than it really felt at the time.
  • Too much of a positivity bias may lead you to forget the lessons you learned from past missteps and mistakes. You might be more vulnerable to scams or manipulation, for instance, or fail to recognize patterns of toxic behavior in relationships.

Chronic stress can damage your memory

How long it takes to get stress out of your memory is determined by time.

It is easier to remember after a stress event. After an hour or so, your amygdala and hippocampus need to rest, and it becomes more difficult to remember.

But what happens if the stressor is ongoing? Put simply, if you always feel scared or frustrated, those emotions no longer make an event special, so they don’t offer useful information for your brain. Those emotions lose their power to boost your memory.

Furthermore, the constant onslaught of cortisol exhausts your memory-making neurons, making it harder to form memories in general. That’s one explanation for the link between conditions like depression and anxiety and poorer memory performance.

“If you experience stress or other mental health symptoms, it’s important to treat them.”

When intense feelings distort your memory and make it harder to recall important information, taking steps to regulate your emotions can help minimize the damage.

There are helpful strategies.

You can harness your emotions to enhance your memory. One small 2021 study asked older adults to go through exercises to deliberately recall memories that made them feel grateful, forgiving, or amused. The adults who completed the exercises were able to recall a greater number of specific, positive memories from their life than those who did not.

You can try this yourself at home too. In fact, if you’ve ever kept a gratitude journal, you’ve already done it. But you don’t have to stick to journaling about gratitude. It may also have benefit to jot down something that made you laugh or smile, or a mistake you forgave — even one of your own mistakes.

Here you can get more tips for journaling.

Do cognitive enhancing drugs work?

Prescription medications, like Adderall and Ritalin, may help improve memory and attention, especially if you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Other cognitive enhancing drugs and supplements exist, but human research on their effects on long-term memory remains limited. Plus, most of these drugs limit their scope to short-term memory.

Keep in mind, too, that medications and supplements typically don’t address any of the emotional concerns disrupting your memory in the first place.

Everyone forgets things from time to time.

“If you misplace your keys, miss appointments, or forget words in conversation, you may want to check in with your doctor. Trouble with memory doesn’t always relate to emotions and forgetfulness could be a more serious cause. A healthcare professional can offer more assistance.”

When memory issues do relate to emotional distress or mental health symptoms, addressing those underlying concerns can often make a big difference.

Cognitive therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on your thoughts and responses to emotional distress.

There are different types of therapy.

Evidence suggests therapy can:

  • It is easier to remember pleasant and painful memories if you reduce the bias.
  • Help you remember your life in a way that is specific.
  • cortisol spikes when you have a low mood

Antidepressants offer another option to consider. Mental health conditions like depression can stall the growth of neurons in your hippocampus. Antidepressants boost the growth of these neurons, which could help reverse the damage to your memory. You may notice results in a matter of weeks.

A therapist can offer more guidance with choosing a therapy approach, while a psychiatrist can provide more information about medication options.

Emotions matter when it comes to memory. They can help sharpen details of key events, but they can also blur your recollection.

If you notice lingering mental or emotional symptoms that seem tied to difficulties with memory, a therapist or other mental health professional can offer more support with navigating and regulating difficult or unwanted emotions.

Managing emotional distress more effectively can help improve our memory and well-being.

Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.